Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fury

War is hell, but you've got to man up, boy. That feels like the theme of Fury (2014), a movie that follows an American tank crew in the waning days of World War II in Germany. Since we are living in a post-Saving Private Ryan world, it is expectedly graphic with its depictions of combat. Heads are blown off, limbs are torn apart, men are burned alive, civilians die horribly when buildings collapse on them, fearsome war machines crush people under their gears, and it only takes one direct hit from a superior German Tiger tank to render the American Sherman a death trap.

Yet, other aspects of the film feel old-fashioned, more like a macho action picture than an unflinching gaze into the ugly side of war. It's a dirty, bloody job, but it takes real men to do it, and you better toughen up quickly because your crew members are counting on you. Fury is the marriage of these two sensibilities, and it's not entirely successful. It's hard to get pumped up when ghastly things happen to people, and it's difficult to accept the notion that some serious point or message is being delivered by the movie when the minimal plot, along with the characters, feel off-the-shelf. Still, in its depiction of action, atmosphere, and look, along with support from its able cast, Fury is an achievement.

World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle famously wrote from the "worm's eye view." He emphasized the grunts and their hard life as they slogged through the cold and mud, and Fury shares that perspective. There's no larger strategy or sense of what World War II was all about; Fury limits itself to the crew of a tank called "Fury" as they slog through the countryside trying to survive. Members include star Brad Pitt as Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, Shia LaBeouf as Boyd "Bible" Swan," Michael Pena as Trini "Gordo" Garcia, and Jon Bernthal as Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis. Early on, they are joined by a rookie, clerk Norman Ellison played by Logan Lerman.

Plot is minimal. The crew goes from one battle to the next, with a stopover in an apartment with two German women, before making a final stand against a column of SS troops. Mostly, the film is a depiction of life in the tank, and it does not look fun. It's cramped, dirty, noisy, and the armor is pretty much a joke when up against German firepower. Outside the tank is not much better. Germany is a cold, wet, miserable place. Roads are soggy, muddy trails that could be loaded with land mines, and being in enemy territory, it's hard to tell if citizens will be friendly or not, a lesson Norman learns the hard way when he hesitates to fire on a group of kids with guns who end up destroying the lead tank in the column. Norman can only watch as that tank's commander, screaming as fire engulf his body, shoots himself in the head. No slow motion, no dramatic style, the movie depicts that act in blunt matter-of-factness.

This event leads to the long-running intra-squad conflict. Norman feels he's not up for this job and wants out. Wardaddy tells he's got no choice and had better get his act together. Next time Norman freezes up, it might their own tank that goes up in flames. They got one job: kill Germans, and that's what Wardaddy is going to get Norman to do. Eventually, gradually, Norman finds himself fitting in.

The characters are straight out of World War II movies of yesteryear. You've got the grizzled leader, the kid, the religious one, the ethnic guy, and the redneck, and despite a good effort from the cast to bring them to life, they never emerge as anything more than types with little room for nuance. As a result, the movie feels stretched out and over long. Take the scene with the German women. It starts off strong as Wardaddy takes Norman inside their apartment and orders him to lock the door. We've seen him kill prisoners, and we know he hates Germans, so we're unsure of what Wardaddy has in mind, and the tension is palpable. Then, he sends Norman into the bedroom with one of the women, and the rest of the squad turns up for a meal around the table, and the scene drags on into tediousness.

Fury works better in its action scenes. Several American tanks drive through the countryside and through a town, their crews never sure when an ambush might happen. The first big battle shows the tanks advancing across a field as infantrymen hang behind them and use them as cover. Later, three (well, four) tanks square off against one German Tiger, and the Americans have to rely on speed, numbers, and maneuverability to get behind the Tiger to hit its weak point; when so many tanks in movies stay in one place and trade shots, these scenes display a strong, kinetic energy.

The final battle, as the men of the broken down Fury stand against hundreds of SS troops, goes on too long. It's hard to buy that five guys with dwindling ammunition and no mobility would be able to hold off an entire column of soldiers as long as they do, especially when the Germans have bazookas and sniper rifles (the Germans are shown carrying Panzerschrecks early,  but they wait a long time to deploy them). The initial surprise - playing dead to lure in as many as possible - works, but once again, the scene goes on and on until its impact is muted. The sight of Brad Pitt manning a machine gun turret as explosions go off all around him feels more like the posturing of an action movie than a desperate fight to death, especially when he takes to taunting the German attackers.

To be better, Fury needs either a longer running length or a shorter one. A longer length would allow more time and space for the characters to breathe and develop, and a shorter length would have focused on the action and been snappier. The period details, along with the grit and grind of tank life, are strongly realized and make the movie worth watching, but the film could have been more.

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